VIFF 2015 Review: A Syrian Love Story

A Syrian Love Story focuses on a Syrian couple from the start of 2011's Arab Spring to the present.
A Syrian Love Story focuses on a Syrian couple from the start of 2011’s Arab Spring to the present.

I saw quite a few documentaries at this year’s VIFF. A Syrian Love Story was one documentary that gets one thinking.

This is a documentary filmed year by year over five years. It starts in 2010 while Syria is going through its start of political turmoil. It had been under turmoil since the 1970’s when Hafez Al-Assad took power and any reforms promised by his son Bashar, who succeeded Hafez in presidency after his death almost ten years earlier, doesn’t deliver in the reforms he promised. Images of protest met with a violent response from government forces are too common. Caught in the middle is a married couple of Amer Daoud and Raghda Hasan. They have four sons from 6 to 22. Amer is living in Damascus being a father to the children. Raghda is in a prison for publishing a book about their relationship of all things. Amer and Raghda are no strangers to political oppression in their home country. Raghda has face imprisonment because she’s a communist revolutionary and Amer was once imprisoned with his ties to the PLO. In face they both first met in prison and fell in love through communicating through a prison wall.

Sean McAllister is in Syria looking for something about Syria’s crisis to film but something out of the ordinary. He finds it in Amer and Raghda. McAllister also shows us their four sons. The first year he films Amer’s phone conversations with Raghda while she’s in prison. He gets her sons to talk with her as well. McAllister was even imprisoned for a few days for a journalism crime and was able to listen first-hand to the torture in Syria’s prisons. He even meets the older son who broke up with his girlfriend because she was pro-Assad. Despite all this, McAllister does show a case of hope for the future, for all.

In 2012, Raghda is finally free. She is reunited with her husband, sons and the rest of her family. But they can’t stay in Syria, not while there’s civil war that started once Syrian people revolted against Assad during 2011’s Arab Spring. The family move to a refugee area in Lebanon. They do it not simply for the sake of themselves but their sons too. McAllister is nervous for the couple’s future since he knows behaviors of prisoners after they’ve been freed. He hopes Raghda doesn’t exhibit behavior that will hurt their marriage.

In 2013, they find themselves in Paris, France. Things are definitely better for the two youngest children Kaka and Bob. Bob is in a good school and Kaka is able to become a disc jockey at his high school. Things appear to go well for Amer and Raghda as they’re able to make a living for themselves but there’s a sense that something’s wrong. The children sense it.

In 2014, we get a good sense of what’s wrong. Amer and Raghda’s marriage is crumbling. Amer feels distant from Raghda and has a French girlfriend of his own. It upsets Raghda to the point she changes the password on his laptop. She even attempts suicide by cutting her wrists. No doubt it upsets everyone. She them admits she never had the chance to find herself and she feels that despite her  political freedom in France, she still feels she can do more for Syria or for others hurt by war.

The film ends in 2015. They two youngest sons have a promising future in France. Their older son reveals his pro-Assad former girlfriend was killed. Asad runs a chicken farm in France and is without Raghda. He wishes her well in whatever she does. Raghda is now in Turkey in a city 20 miles from the Syrian border. She works with refugees and is happier with her life now.

This is a unique story of love that starts with one hoping for a happy ending. We know Syria won’t turn out for the better but we hope that Raghda will be free and will return to her family and they’ll live happily ever after. We all want that storybook ending. Unfortunately it doesn’t end up that way. McAllister knows the problems prisoners exhibit after they’re free and he lets Amer and all of us know it. Over time, it shows after the moves, after Syria’s continued strife and after one senses the love between the two fading over time. It was unfortunate. The moment of hope doesn’t end up being when Raghda is free but rather when Amer is still in France and Raghda is in Turkey. That’s where the true scene of hope for the better is present.

The story is not just about the couple. It’s also about the surrounding family. This is especially noteworthy of the two youngest sons, Kaka and Bob. Bob is six at the beginning and the youngest. He tried to be a carefree child but the hurt of knowing his mother’s in prison is evident. Kaka is ten at the start and familiar with the realities in Syria. He’s able to tell Sean in good enough English his feeling of the situation, and of how he’d either like to fight or kill Assad. As they grow, the changes are present. Bob is getting bigger but has difficulties fitting into his school in Paris because his long hair causes other boys to call him a girl. Kaka is getting a better education but can’t ignore what’s happening to his parents. He can sense what’s happening and has his own opinions on what he feels should happen. Although the two are not the main protagonists, their presence in this story is vital.

One thing about this documentary is that the story focuses more on the fading marriage than it does in the strife in Syria from civil oppression to public outcry to a civil war to the eventual crisis with ISIS. However it does focus on the couple as they were fighting their own war with each other. They go from loving each other and having a closeness while Raghda’s in prison to the love fading over time after Raghda is free and they’re together again. It’s sad that they were closer together when Raghda was in prison. It’s even hard to pinpoint who’s the bad guy. Is it Amer for his fading commitment? Or is it Raghda for her inner strife? Amer appears like a jerk not even willing to try when he says things like “Syrians love prisoners,” but Raghda’s suicide attempt gets you wondering was she thinking of her family at the time?

Watching this documentary, I believe that this isn’t the type of documentary meant for the big screen. With the camera quality, editing and McAllister’s voice over, it fares much better as something for television broadcast. I’m sure that’s what it intends to be. I have to give McAllister credit for having the ability to do all this filming over time and to present a unique story. I also give Amer and Raghda credit for McAllister willing to film them while their marriage was hitting rock bottom and they were showing terrible behavior such as Amer threatening to smash his laptop and Raghda slitting her wrists. It surprises me that they were willing to show things that personal on camera.

A Syrian Love Story may not be a documentary meant for the big screen but it’s a very revealing story that reminds us not all love story has the fairytale ending. despite the hardships they show, it does end on a hopeful, if not happy, note.

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: Philomena

Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish woman looking for he long lost son, in Philomena.
Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish woman looking for her long lost son, in Philomena.

The premise of Philomena may make many people nervous about seeing it. The questions before watching it will be “Will it be too disturbing?” or “Will the Catholic Church get knocked on screen again?” There’s only one way to find out.

The film begins in 1951 with a teenage Philomena Lee. She meets a young boy at a town fair whom she completely falls for that one day. Fast forward to 2004. Martin Sixsmith is an unemployed journalist since the Labour Party, the party he works as a government advisor, is beset by scandal. He goes to a party and meets the daughter of Philomena Lee who encourages him to write a story about her mother who was forced to give up her baby boy Anthony more than 50 years ago. Martin is uninterested in writing a human interest story and is more intent on writing a book on Russian history. However it’s after he meets Philomena and hears her story about how it all happened that he changes his mind and investigates further.

Once she was pregnant, she was sent by her father to Sean Ross Abbey, a mother-and-baby home that young unwed pregnant girls were sent to. It was terrible to live there while under the orders of the strict Sister Hildegarde, especially if she was assigned to do the laundries for four year to cover her stay. Nevertheless she was able to see her baby Anthony whom grew attached to her friend’s girl Mary. Then one day Philomena saw Mary and Anthony adopted out of the house. All Philomena could do was watch in heartbreak 30 feet away as her infant son was taken away.

Philomena had tried for years to find out what happened to her son by visiting the convent to no avail. Martin goes with Philomena to the convent only to hear from the nuns the records were lost in a fire years earlier. It’s over at the pub they hear from locals that the records were purposely destroyed in a fire and the children were sold to rich Americans. It’s after Martin’s searches in Ireland coming to a dead end that he decides on an arduous task. He decides to get the answers by visiting the United States and having Philomena accompany him.

Upon arrival in the United States, he learns through various search sites that Anthony and Mary were adopted by Doc and Marge Hess who renamed him Michael. Michael grew up to be a lawyer and a senior official to the Republic Party during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. He also learns news of heartbreak. Michael died in 1995 at the age of 43. The news naturally breaks Philomena’s heart but soon she wants to meet with people who knew Michael.

She meets one colleague and learns Michael was gay and died of AIDS. She meets up with Mary who grew up with Michael and eventually became a mother. Mary reveals Michael had a boyfriend named Pete Olsson. Pete is unwilling to cooperate despite Martin’s please but it’s not until Philomena pleads face to face with Pete that he complies. The visit with Pete is warm as he tells her of Michael’s childhood and even shows home videos. It’s when Philomena sees a video of Michael at the Sean Ross Abbey that she learns Michael tried looking for her while he was dying. She also learns he was buried over at the Abbey.

It’s then when Martin and Philomena return to the Abbey where it all started. It’s there where Martin can confront Sister Hildegard for being strict on the girls and being deceptive to both Philomena and Michael, whom she told Michael he was abandoned and they lost contact with the mother. Hildegard is unrepentant but surprisingly Philomena approaches her and forgives her. It’s right at Michael’s grave that she can finally meet the son she’s always looked for and finally make peace with her past.

The best quality of the movie is its unpredictability for those who’ve never learned the story. There may be some who have already learned the story of Philomena Lee but most who haven’t. If you don’t, then this movie will surprise you in many areas. It’s not just about Philomena’s search but learning of her son and what happened in the end. The film is full of moments. Moments of happiness, moments of tension, moments of relief, moments of surprise, moments of sadness and moments of humor. The film shows that the trip Philomena went on was not just about leaning about what came of her son but also her own personal journey of healing. A healing that needed to happen and occurred in unexpected ways.

Another great quality is the portrayal of the characters themselves. Philomena comes across as a very likeable and charming woman. Nevertheless one would question how smart she is at times and even question her faith if it’s just routine or even strong. Philomena is seen as simple and sometimes blames herself for a lot of wrongs in her life. However she comes across at the end as a stronger person than one would originally think. The biggest surprise is it would be Martin who most seems to have problems and issues while Philomena, who is the one who actually endured trauma, who still smiles at life in the end despite the harshness she went through.

Martin himself comes across as your typical egotistical journalist who appears to want to destroy the Catholic Church with his pen but somehow has a softening of heart once Philomena comes into his life. He will first make one wonder what his true intentions of helping Philomena learn of her son is: to really help Philomena or to get a great story published. In the end, he comes off as rather likeable for a journalist. Proof that even a journalist can have a heart!

I know there may be some Catholic readers that may be hesitant about seeing this film and the way the Catholic Church is portrayed. Yes, it’s surprising that Catholics would be more concerned about their depiction of the Church in a film that’s not by Martin Scorsese than whether Scorsese’s latest has another slamming of the Catholic Church in his latest. Even I myself was a bit concerned about seeing this as I saw The Magdalene Sisters ten years ago and it really was a nasty depiction of nuns and priests as well as a harsh but true look at the abuse the girls received. Philomena doesn’t show the girls in the laundries suffering abuse. It shows then doing the laundry but it does show the heartbreak of a teenage Philomena as she sees Anthony taken away from a distant window. It also shows Sister Hildegard to be unapologetic for all she’s done, not even for the girls that died during childbirth.

Actually in retrospect, I think it makes the Catholic Church look like the bad guy while the Catholic faith comes across as a positive thing in the end. One will first think of Philomena’s Catholic faith as something too ritualistic or forced upon her and even prone to break at one point but one will see in the end that it’s her faith that helps her through her hard times. In fact Philomena’s response to why she forgives Sister Hildegard in from of Martin will astonish the audience and will surprise many about how forgiveness is actually a form of personal strength.  As for The Wolf Of Wall Street, Catholics should relax as the most there is in it is a joke about nuns which is the tamest taunting of the Catholic church I’ve seen is a Scorsese movie in years. I feel Philomena’s story of her search is an uplifting story of hurt and eventual healing.

Without a doubt, the standout of the film is the performance of Judi Dench. Judi is one of those actresses who really knows how to excel with age. I may have seen better acting performances from her but her portrayal of Philomena was excellent in showing the many dimensions of Philomena Lee as well as adding a charm to her. Steve Coogan was also very good in what I feel to be the best acting I’ve seen from him. His role as Martin didn’t have the same dimension as Philomena but it was a very good performance. Coogan also did a very good job of scriptwriting with Jeff Pope. The story keeps one interested especially for those who don’t know the story of Philomena Lee. Stephen Frears may not as done as spectacular job in directing as Judi did in acting and as Jeff and Steve did in writing but it is worthy of respect. It may not be as great as his Oscar-nominated directing in The Queen but it’s still a very good job. Finally, Alexandre Desplat does it again in making the film with his score composition.

Philomena may first appear like a harsh movie about a woman hurt by her past and finally looking for answers. In the end it turns out to be more bittersweet than harsh and will leave one feeling Philomena did win in the end.

Film Review: Blood Pressure

Michelle Giroux reads a letter from a secret 'friend' in the Canadian-made thriller Blood Pressure.
Michelle Giroux reads a letter from a secret ‘friend’ in the Canadian-made Blood Pressure.

Even though I’m excited about the summer fare in movies, I’m also interested in what the independent movies have to show. Blood Pressure is one. Shown at the VIFF Theatre in Vancouver, it’s Canadian-shot, Canadian-produced and Canadian-made. But is it one film for those who want to get off the beaten path?

The film begins with the reading of a letter addressed from ‘a friend.’ It’s to a woman named Nicole. The letter from this ‘friend’ appears to be one who knows a lot about her. The ‘friend’ knows she’s a pharmacist and married mother of two living in a Toronto suburb. The ‘friend’ even knows where she graduated from. The friend also knows she’s not too happy with her job and her family life. You’ll soon see the friend is right. She’s not happy with her marriage or her job at a pharmacy. The one person she can confide to is retiring from the pharmacy.

Interestingly the ‘friend’ knows what to give Nicole as this ‘friend’ gives her a card for a complimentary massage and a manicure. The friend even knows of her wishes as just days after talking to her husband about a vacation to Mexico, she follows a set of lights to a chair with a plane ticket to Mexico. And the friend gives her shooting range sessions and martial arts classes. The ‘friend’ then asks of her to do things to prove her loyalty such as set up a flyer in the mail a certain way. Then the requests get bigger as the ‘friend’ asks her to observe a young man with a cane in a cafe at a certain time. Then the requests become even more voyeuristic as the ‘friend’ asks Nicole to observe the man while talking on the phone without being noticed. It didn’t work and the friend asks her to view the man in his bed at a certain time and be very observant.

However this fixation of these letters starts to bear down on Nicole’s life. The shooting sessions and martial arts classes work for her and even improve her relationship with her daughter. However it’s leading to difficulties in her marriage and even disputes with her boss on the job. Then the moment when she can finally find out who the friend is: a request to give the man an envelope at the cafe. It’s there she finds out that he’s the friend but it’s at his hotel suite she finds out why. At the suite she learns of this man, Darryl Saunders, and of his debilitating physical handicap. He is impressed with her loyalty to him and gives her one last request: kill him.

Nicole doesn’t know how to take this request. She tried looking up his medical information only to learn of a Daria Saunders instead, who is Darryl’s deceased wife. Meanwhile she develops feelings for the man and has simultaneously won over the attraction of her pharmacy boss. This even has her husband suspecting an affair. This all leads to a surprise decision from Nicole which leads to finding out another surprising truth about Darryl. The end result is one that will surprise you and the movie ends on a note that can leave the audience deciding for themselves how it all ends.

This film is a very good example of a creative idea paying off. It all started with an idea from scriptwriter Bill Fugler from an idea while talking with writing friends at a café bookstore. Co-writer and director Sean Garrity added narrative elements to bring the story to the big screen. It was originally to be filmed in Winnipeg when a sudden career change with his wife led to shoot it in suburban Toronto: Richmond Hill to be exact. Jonas Chernick was cast to be Darryl. Michelle Giroux, a friend of Jonas Chernick, was a stage actor and originally only read with the male actors during pre-production. Garrity was so impressed by her reading, she was cast as the lead. It was an excellent choice as Giroux owned the film. She was given a very complex lead role that spoke volumes even when she wasn’t speaking at all and she delivered excellently. Jonas was also good as the hurting Darryl as was Jonah Katz as the struggling husband. Tatiana Maslany did an excellent job of portraying a teenage daughter despite being much older.

After seeing Before Midnight, I was tempted to think that Blood Pressure was about reaching middle age in today’s world and the emotions that run through people. Even though Nicole possessed a lot of feelings and frustrations one would have at middle age, it’s not what this movie’s about. It’s more of a psychological thriller that uses human emotions to keep the audience thrilled instead of special effects.

One thing unique about Blood Pressure is its surprise success. The film made its big screen debut at the Busan Film Festival. It was screened in Garrity’s home city of Winnipeg in February 2013 to sold out shows at Cinematheque cinema which led to a screening at the Grant Park Cinema weeks later. The film would soon have popular screenings in Toronto in March. Its success in Toronto and Winnipeg has led to other screening nationwide including Calgary screenings and a Vancouver debut on June 29th. I actually thought something like this would make its Vancouver debut at the VIFF. looks like its buzz made it happen faster.

Blood Pressure is a surprise for the summer but not on a large scale. Those interested in Canadian film will like this. This is an excellent triumph for Manitoba filmmakers.

Oscars 2011 Best Picture Nominee: The Tree Of Life

The Tree Of Life won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The film isn’t the typical drama you’d come to expect. Instead it’s more introspective and delivers a message of a common theme of the human existence.

The movie’s story starts upon Mrs. O’Brien receiving the news of her son’s death. Mrs. O’Brien had always been taught everyone must choose between the path of grace or the path of nature. The son’s death would throw the family in turmoil. The movie then focuses on present-day Jack O’Brien, now an architect. When a tree is planted in front of his building, he reminisces about his life as a young boy during the 1950’s.

A pre-teen Jack is living with his family in suburban Waco, Texas and is now forced to choose the path for himself. His parents have equal bout opposite influences on him. His mother represents grace as she is gentle and nurturing but authoritative, presenting the world as a place of wonder. His father represents nature as he is loving but strict and authoritarian as he tries to make his boys tough for a world here perceives as corrupt and exploitative. He often questions giving up his passion of becoming a musician and instead became an engineer and hopes to achieve wealth through filing patents of his inventions.

Before Mr. O’Brien goes on a trip to market his inventions, a drowning death of a child at the town pool happens. Mr. O’Brien suddenly turns violent and unleashes an abusive rage on his boys and Mrs. O’Brien. While he’s away, Jack and the boys are raised exclusively by their mother and his feelings of rebelliousness start happening. Jack follows along with the other boys in his town and commits acts of vandalism and animal abuse, even theft of women’s underclothing from a neighbor’s house. It’s after that where Jack gets the first natural sense of his consequences and throws the stolen underwear in the river. Mr. O’Brien returns home having failed to sell his inventions. His plant closes and is given the option of staying with the company with an unpromising job or be terminated. He chooses the unpromising job which means the O’Brien family would have to move away from Waco. Upon leaving he asks Jack to forgive him for the harsh treatment of him.

What I just stated in the above synopsis was of the events that happened in the drama. That’s only half of it. The other half is what happens in the more sublime parts. The opening image of the movie is the mysterious flame that flickers in the darkness. We see it at the beginning of the film as it leads to the opening scene of Mrs. O’Brien receiving the news of her son’s death. Just as soon as an older Jack O’Brien reminisces of his childhood in the 50’s, the movie doesn’t shift back to Jack in the 50’s but of the very beginning of the universe. Galaxies are formed, planets are formed, volcanic activity and the existence of life begin on Earth, dinosaurs fight to survive and fight to conquer, an asteroid hits the Earth, and then the O’Briens marry and have Jack and his two brothers. This leads into the main drama of the story.

After Jack reconciles with his father the sublime returns as it fast forwards to an Earth five billion years later incinerated and shrunken by the sun and left completely devoid of any life. The movie returns to the present as Jack leaves work and encounters a vision of walking on rocks. As he walks through a lone wooden door frame, which is probably the door from the house in Waco which doesn’t exist, and is reunited with his family and all those who were in his life. Even those that died including his brother have been resurrected. The movie ends with the mysterious flame seen at the beginning continuing to flicker in the darkness.

For those who’ve seen the movie, there’s no question that the movie is very much thematic and gets you thinking. The biggest theme of the movie has to be the constant dilemma of the way of grace vs. the way of nature. It’s a constant choice everyone has to face in their life. It’s also made present in the movie that this dilemma has existed ever since there was life on Earth even before the human race. It’s a dilemma Jack is forced to confront as a child and witness his parents representing the two opposites. The way of grace is given additional support by the messages given by the priest. The way of nature is given additional support by all the rough, even destructive games the boys play. That theme and the various part of the film, both in terms of the plot and the sublime, focus on the theme of grace vs. nature being the universal pulse.

If there’s one weakness of the film that stands out, it’s that it tries too hard to be artistic and creative. I actually admire films that try to be original and take artistry to new levels. The only problem is all too often, many artistically inclined films look like they forget they are to be shown in front of an audience. When I critique movies, my attitude towards the more artsy films is: “Okay, I know you are trying to be artistic and creative but don’t forget you’ll be seen in front of an audience.” I also have a tough attitude towards commercial movies: “Okay, I know you want to make big money but give the audience their money’s worth.” Overall I feel a film doesn’t have to be entertainment but it should do something with the audience, like connect with them or get them thinking.

Enough about my critiquing guidelines. The problem with the Tree Of Life is that firstly it takes a subject matter that is common. It also tries to connect the dealings of loss and lost innocence with the existence of earth and the universe itself and even the spiritual world. Yes, it makes for some creative film crafting and original themes but it doesn’t succeed in grabbing the crowd or make them involved in the story line. Often the story tries too hard to let its sublime side get inside the audience that the story comes across as humorless and even unwatchable or confusing at times. That has to be the biggest glitch and that’s why I feel it doesn’t deserve to win Best Picture. Terrence Malick does his best to write and direct a watchable movie about lost innocence and reconciling with the past that tries to get inside the audience, but it misses in a lot of ways.

The best acting performance overall had to come from then-newcomer Jessica Chastain. It was her performance as Mrs. O’Brien, the struggling housewife, that was the most complex as she plays a character who struggles to keep the calm of the family despite the many fierce adversaries that come their way. Even though Chastain earned an Oscar nomination in The Help, I felt her supporting performance here was much scronger and deeper. Brad Pitt also did well but it was not his best acting performance. Actually his performance was more of a supporting performance as was that of Sean Penn. The leading performance of the movie actually comes from young Hunter McCracken. As young Jack O’Brien, he embodies the loss of innocence unraveling through its joy, anger and its heartbreak. Through young Jack, we see the embodiment of what being a young boy is all about in both a boy’s toughness and tenderness. Young Jack sees all that is happening and what would lead to the decline in relationship with his father that would pave the way for the reconciliation. The film’s best qualities are the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and the musical score by Alexandre Desplat.

The Tree of Life tackles familiar themes of coming of age, loss of innocence and reconciling with the past. The problem with it is it tries too hard to connect it with the existence of the universe, all life on earth, the end times and even the spiritual world. Although it didn’t really appeal to me, I’ll just sum it up by saying it’s a love-it-or-hate-it film.